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Head of NCC board resigns amid turmoil

Chair Geoffrey Prime looks on during the Nassau

Chair Geoffrey Prime looks on during the Nassau Community College Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday. (Oct. 10, 2012) Credit: Barry Sloan

The head of Nassau Community College's board of trustees has abruptly resigned, amid political infighting over selecting the next president to run the institution.

Geoffrey Prime, chairman of the college's governing board, sent an email message to nine fellow trustees about 7 p.m. Saturday. His resignation is effective immediately.

Some people have complained the process to select a new president for the Garden City school was unfair.

In an interview Sunday, Prime said the controversy over the presidential selection was too time-consuming. "I realized I couldn't devote the time required and that the college deserved," said Prime, a criminal defense attorney appointed to the board in August 2010. "Obviously, I want what's best for the college."

When asked whether anyone had pressured him to resign, he said: "It was entirely my decision."

The board's vice chair, Jorge Gardyn, will be acting chairman.

The move was a surprise to trustee Anthony Cornachio, who on Friday night met with Prime and members of the presidential search committee to discuss how candidates were selected and interviewed. At that gathering, the two talked again about meeting this week.

"I'm at a loss," said Cornachio, who is head of the search committee. "I know he's very busy and he's hard-pressed to meet all of his obligations."

Prime is a founding partner of Prime & O'Brien, LLP in Garden City and is mayor of the Village of South Floral Park.

"Geoff is a man of high morals and good integrity," Gardyn said. "He has tried to run the chair with honesty. I think he did a great job. I wish him well and he will be sorely missed."

Prime's resignation comes as the two-year college is deeply divided over the search for its new president. Labor contract negotiations and the need to approve the budget also added to the load, Cornachio said.

"He's not a quitter by nature. He likes public service. I just think he reached a point where I think he couldn't take any more," Cornachio said.

The conflict at the college hit a new level last week when, after three finalists were announced, current acting president Kenneth Saunders claimed he was denied a fair interview for the permanent president's job.

Several complaint letters to the State University of New York prompted Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher to halt the presidential search and open an investigation into the fairness of the selection process.

Prime was charged with leading that probe.

"The chancellor expects that whomever assumes the duties of board chair will conduct the requested investigation," SUNY spokesman David Doyle said in an email. "No NCC candidate will be recommended to the SUNY board until this work is completed and we are satisfied that the search process was above reproach."

Saunders characterized the interview process as hostile and said he welcomed the investigation. "I just want it to run its course and see what the outcome will be," he said.

Saunders said he and Prime had a good working relationship. "It's just an unfortunate set of circumstances," he said.

"I think he's made a concerted effort to lead the board with the degree of integrity that's needed to move forward."

Cornachio denies that anything untoward happened during the selection process and said Saunders got the same treatment all candidates did. "This was a job interview," he said. "They weren't guests in a home. We weren't serving tea and crumpets. . . [Interviewers] asked pointed questions. If there was evasiveness, they asked for specificity."

The campus group ALANA, representing minority faculty and staff, had unsuccessfully lobbied to get a seat on the selection committee.

"I am totally perplexed," said Robert L. Hodge Jr., a criminal justice professor at the college and an executive board member of ALANA. "Why would he resign in the middle of the controversy, because he now has none of the power that he would have had to fix any of the problems?"

On Tuesday, more than 300 people packed an auditorium for the monthly meeting of the board of trustees. Dozens of speakers called on the board to redo the search. Zimpher's endorsement and a vote by SUNY trustees is needed to install a president at the college, which has an enrollment of nearly 24,000 and is the largest single-campus community college in the state system.

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